Why Great Leaders Don’t Allow Their Profession to Become Their Identity

Why Great Leaders Don’t Allow Their Profession to Become Their Identity

John Eades 15/08/2023
Why Great Leaders Don’t Allow Their Profession to Become Their Identity

Allowing one's profession to become the sole defining identity can lead to tunnel vision and burnout.

Great leaders understand that a well-rounded identity encompasses a range of passions, skills, and experiences that shape their worldview and enhance their leadership style.

As he sat down with me nearing the last day of his employment at the company he helped build, I asked the question, “How are you handling the thought of retirement?” His answer was something I will never forget, “I am not what I do.” While I had known for some time how great of a leader he was, those words cemented the sentiment for me and taught me such a valuable lesson about identity.

He went on to share how much joy and accomplishment he felt because of the positive impact he had made on the thousands of customers, employees and family members of those employees who were a part of his journey. 

When I ask most people, “Who are you?” I typically get answers that go right to their professional title like; CEO, Accountant, Lawyer, Project Manager, CFO or Athlete, because people believe “I am what I do.” There are a lot of reasons for this, but it boils down to the amount of time, energy, and effort we expend doing our jobs. 

I don’t want to leave you mistaken or confused. I am not saying great leaders don’t work hard, raise the level of performance of their people, have high standards, and constantly strive for greatness. Quite the opposite is true. They do all these things, but they know at some point it will come to an end. If their entire identity is wrapped up in their work what will they have when it’s over?

If you forge your identity out of your profession you will lose your identity when the profession runs out. 

Here are a few ways to ensure your profession doesn’t become your identity:

Don’t Allow Your Authority at Work to Go to Your Head

Many companies are still structured in a hierarchical way. While I don’t believe this is the best way, it’s the reality of the world we live in. Having said that, just because you are higher up the food chain and have more control over daily decisions, doesn’t mean you have higher powers than others. Great leaders know their responsibility and act accordingly.

Make Your Legacy About Impact

I love the example Oprah Winfrey gave at a recent commencement address, “The biggest reward in life isn’t financial benefits. Those things are great but they don’t fill up your life, only living a life of substance will. Maya Angelou taught me an incredible lesson. Your legacy is every life you touch.” If your mindset as a leader is focused on making an impact through those you come into contact with, your identity will center around service (as opposed to your profession).

Serve Others Outside of Work

Winston Churchill famously said "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give." This isn’t about financial contributions. Look for ways to volunteer in your community or start a support group. If you give up your free time to serve others in your community, when you change professions, careers, or even retire, you will have places to go to add immediate value.

Focus on Creating More Leaders

Most people think about their own career and development, (which is important) but great leaders focus as much, if not more on others' development. I love the quote from Noel Tichy, “Winning companies win because they have good leaders who nurture the development of other leaders at all levels of the organization.” When you are focused on helping others become the best version they can be, your identity shifts away from simply doing your job to creating a butterfly effect of people that value having you in their life. 

If you are like most people and your profession is your identity, take some advice from this week’s Follow My Lead podcast guest, Michael Bungay Stanier, and use the New Habit Formula:

When this happens... (situation, trigger, circumstance)

Instead of... (habit you don’t want to do anymore)

I will... (new habit you can complete in 60 seconds)

You have control over your habits and can start implementing some of these ideas to begin the process of transformation.

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John Eades

Leadership Expert

John is the CEO of LearnLoft, author of, F.M.L. Standing Out & Being a Leader and host of the 'Follow My Lead' Podcast. He writes or has been featured on Inc.com, LinkedIn Pulse, TrainingIndustry.com, eLearningIndustry.com, CNBC Money, and more. John completed his education at the University of Maryland College. 

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